Roslyn : Bringing life back to Dunedin’s oldest club

July 1, 2022

Like the other main centres in New Zealand, the boundaries of what is now the Dunedin City Council was once made up of a plethora of borough councils : our forebears strongly believed in locals managing autonomous postage stamp-sized neighbourhoods in the southern provincial capital.

But then Caversham Borough Council merged with Dunedin City in 1904, followed by South Dunedin (1905); North East Valley (1910); Roslyn (1912); Māori Hill (1915); Mornington (1916); Bay Town (1916); West Harbour (1963); Peninsula (1968); Port Chalmers (1989); Mosgiel (1989); St Kilda (1989); Green Island (1989) and SIlverpeaks (1989).

Civic pride required that each of these boroughs boast their own amenities ; a town hall; a library; a retail high street; a sports ground and more. And of course a bowling club. It’s no coincidence that the list of Dunedin bowling clubs reads much the same as the above list of borough councils.

And whilst the list of borough councils has been consigned to history, many of the local bowling clubs remain alive and kicking ... some more alive, and some with more kick than others.

The Roslyn Bowling club is one of those clubs that remains kicking, having been proudly established in the borough of Roslyn back in 1883. It is now the oldest surviving bowling club in the Dunedin Centre. What’s more, it’s in remarkable health for a club touching on 140 years old!

“Things weren’t looking so sharp 15 or so years ago,” observes Club President Geoff Simons. “A proposed amalgamation with Balmacewen and Otago Bowling Clubs had fallen over when the latter closed. We were looking at closure too.”

“Fortunately, we were able to turn things around. We now have an active membership of over 30, and the membership is on the increase.”

It’s great news. Because the Roslyn grounds and clubhouse are a real treasure.

Whilst the club began life in 1883 on a different site a few blocks away, the popularity of lawn bowls in the Roslyn Borough meant that the single 4-rink green quickly became inadequate, and the club was forced to move to its present site in 1905.

“I’m not sure when the current clubhouse was built, but it must’ve come shortly afterwards ... it’s certainly of that Edwardian vintage inside and out.”

The inside is wallpapered with gilded honours boards feting the accomplishments of club members over the last 100+ years. It’s like being in a Downton Abbey drawing room. Outside a giant yew hedge stretches down the western boundary of the club grounds creating an outlook inspired by Capability Brown.

“We get a bloke in once a year to give it a trim,” laughs Geoff. “He’s no topiarist. And would scare Health & Safety. But he does a great job. The hedge would be over 20 feet high … I wouldn’t want to tackle it.”

But that’s where the older worldliness ends.

Geoff and his team have focused their efforts on making the club as hospitable as possible to both members and guests.

“We changed the membership model,” explains Geoff. “It’s now just $30 a year to become a member of the club. Then the ‘pluses’ come: It’s +$100 per year to play inter-club bowls (and be ‘affiliated’); its +$60 per year to play Twilight bowls; +$20 per year to use the community vege garden out the back: and +$20 per year to be in the brewing club. We’ve found this menu pricing is great for encouraging and retaining membership, especially social members.”

“We’ve also spiced up our hospitality. This isn’t a club where the choices at the bar are Speights, Speights or Speights. We reckon we have the largest beer and craft beer selection of any bowling club in Dunedin, probably New Zealand and possibly the world. The members, our guests and our visitors love it.”

“At the same time, we’ve made the club a great place to hold events : Christmas, birthday, anniversary or whatever. We’ve just bought some new bowls for visitors to use … smaller size ones more suitable for the women. We still use old dead member’s bowls which take a wider arc than Halley’s Comet!”

“Even if it’s too wet to play bowls, we have all the toys inside : table tennis, pool, darts; foozball; cornholing; roulette; paddleboard; kubb; and of course indoor bowls. In years gone by there also used to be a full-size billiard table out in the backroom ... there’s still 6 concrete blocks embedded in the floor that used to support the legs.”

“And we’ve purchased fold-down tables throughout, so the clubrooms can quickly be transformed from lawn bowls pavilion to entertainment venue.”

“But the most successful thing we’ve done is integrating the club into the community … the Roslyn community wants us here, and loves us here.”

“As part of that, we’re determined to make the club more diverse. Our membership is now 40% women, but we want to do better : the streets around the club are known as the Greek Quarter and we’d like to reflect that ethnicity.”

However, it’s not all about making the club more attractive. It’s about playing bowls as well. And playing bowls well … as well!

“It’s been a long time between drinks,” says Geoff. “One of our members won the National Singles in Christchurch in 1916, and we won the Dunedin Centre Championship Fours in 1943. It took us until 2020 for us to win another Centre title: Mike Pattillo was the Champion of Champions and the following year Andrew Maffey, a first year bowler, only just lost the Junior Champion of Champion title.”

“We entered a Men’s Fours in the Nationals in Alexandra last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Heavily beaten in some games but we had the best-looking kit on the green though!”

But when it comes to administration, the Roslyn Bowling Club has certainly come to the party.

“Our Treasurer Chris Morland is Chair of the Dunedin Centre; our secretary Isobel Sharp is also on the board; and I’ve been on the Operations Committee for a number of years.”

“Ken Stott was President of Bowls New Zealand in 1999-2000.”

“And I understand that back in the day, Arthur Barnett (of department store fame) was Club Captain for Roslyn. He must’ve had a lot to offer!”